Richmond Confidential looks back on 2014, year for the ages

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Long after the billboards come down, the campaign mailers rest in landfills and the New Year’s toasts come and go, 2014 may be remembered as Richmond’s big election year.

We are honored to have been in Richmond’s streets and chambers, its homes and schools and everywhere else, helping write the first drafts of history in an important time and place.

Chevron Corp. poured an unprecedented $3.1 million into the municipal races only to lose the open mayoral and city council seats to a progressive coalition on every front.

Richmond Confidential’s coverage detailing how corporate funds flooded local politics struck a nerve far beyond the city’s limits, getting picked up by national news outlets including the Los Angeles TimesThe Nation, Rachel Maddow and Bill Moyers.

And in a Fall where police-community relations became a cultural flashpoint nationwide, Richmond proved yet again that though it’s susceptible to common urban challenges, it’s particularly creative and scrappy in its approach to solutions.

The season began with the city’s first fatal officer-involved shooting in seven years, just weeks after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. But while violent protests and explosive clashes flared in cities across the country, Richmond’s Fall ended with Police Chief Chris Magnus and mayor-elect Tom Butt joining peaceful youth-led protests outside of the RYSE Center in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

This year, Richmond again proved that a small city can make a big impression.

As 2014 comes to a close, let’s reflect on some of the highlights of this momentous time.

And most of all, thank you, our readers, for helping write Richmond’s story.

Money and rhetoric flood Richmond election

Chevron stickers cover a Donna Powers banner at the corner of Barrett and Richmond Pkwy. on Sept. 26 (Photo by Harriet Rowan)

The battle for Richmond’s municipal elections garnered national attention, fueled in part by Richmond Confidential’s in-depth reporting.

Richmond Confidential was the first to report that Chevron had poured $3 million into a web of campaign committees. We explored the reasons behind Chevron’s investment in this local election, and fact-checked the attack ads that filled residents’ mailboxes.

When U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders came to Richmond to rally progressive voters, we were there.

We profiled the big names behind Chevron’s massive PR machine and little-known candidates backed by Chevron’s big bucks to give Richmond residents the information they needed leading up to the election.

***

Harriet Rowan: “I really appreciated the long leash we were given to find and report stories in our own ways. I saw how most established outlets reported election spending, and I had always been eager to try it my own way.  

“I wanted to make political and election reporting as compelling to an audience as I find it. I tried new ways to engage and inform our readers, and dispel the myth that political reporting has to be boring and dry.”

David beats Goliath: progressives sweep election

Tom Butt (center), with his wife and campaign manager, reacts as unofficial election results show him winning Richmond's mayoral seat. (Photo by Bonnie Chan)

Tom Butt (center), with his wife and campaign manager, reacts as unofficial election results show him winning Richmond’s mayoral seat. (Photo by Bonnie Chan)

Our reporters were spread out around Richmond on election day. As results poured in, it became clear that Chevron’s attempt to buy the election had backfired. The progressive slate of candidates swept the election.

That night, newly-elected mayor Tom Butt laid out his plans for the city as his opponent, Nat Bates, reflected on defeat.

***

Bonnie Chan: “Getting that victory photo of Tom Butt on election night was harder than I’d thought it would be. Before the final results rolled in, I spent some time scouting out a well-lit spot in the Baltic where I thought Butt might make his victory speech, and planted myself there with my camera ready. 

“But when the results came in Butt headed straight towards his campaign manager, Alex Knox, who was standing in the darkest corner of the room. I was hoping they would confer and then move out into a more well-lit spot to claim victory. (Usually I don’t carry a flash with me, because I’m a masochist.) But when Butt’s wife, Shirley, joined them in the corner, I knew I would just need to make photos however I could. 

“I couldn’t believe it. Even the walls at the Baltic are black. It was like trying to take a decent photo inside of a cave.

“Earlier this semester, going into election season, I reminded myself to never be an asshole just because I’m a reporter trying to get a good story — that I’m a concerned citizen first, before I’m ever a reporter. But that night at the Baltic, I did yell at Tom Butt in my own head for not standing in a decent place for the cameras. Then again, as the new mayor of Richmond, I guess he’ll be in the metaphorical spotlight from now on, even if not in the literal spotlight.”

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Registered voter turnout in Richmond, 2012 primary. (Graphic by Jeremy C.F. Lin)

Our political reporting didn’t end on election night. After the excitement from the election ebbed, we explored issues like Richmond’s controversial at-large voting system.

Progressive policing keeps the peace in Richmond

RPD Chief Chris Magnus, left, and Mayor-elect Tom Butt, right, showed support at a peaceful protest organized by the RYSE Center. (Photo by Bonnie Chan)

RPD Chief Chris Magnus, left, and Mayor-elect Tom Butt, right, showed support at a peaceful protest organized by the RYSE Center. (Photo by Bonnie Chan)

Violent crime in Richmond continued its steep decline in 2014 with homicides falling to 14, the lowest rate in decades.

Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus encouraged community-based policing tactics and was invited to offer guidance in Ferguson in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death. After a grand jury failed to deliver an indictment in Ferguson, Magnus and mayor-elect Tom Butt demonstrated as part of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

But the Richmond Police Department’s sterling record of no officer-involved shootings since 2007 was shattered with the September killing of Richard “Pedie” Perez III on Cutting Boulevard. Friends and family described Perez, who was intoxicated and unarmed the night of his death, as a good-natured prankster.

The details of Perez’s fatal encounter with Officer Wallace Jensen were only revealed months later at a coroner’s inquest.

* * *

Elly Schmidt-Hopper: “My first article for Richmond Confidential was the hardest to write. Not because the content was difficult to understand, but because it was emotional. Pedie Perez, a 24-year-old shot and killed in the Iron Triangle, was the first fatal officer involved in seven years. 

“He was also a real person, and I spoke with many of his friends and family members in the days after his death. 

“It was a lesson on the importance of ethical journalism: how to tell a story of someone’s life that is true to them, but also true to the situation surrounding the events. The officer who shot him is also a person, who will now surely have to live with that moment he decided to pull the trigger forever. 

“How do you write an honest profile delicately when you can’t interview the main character? I will never forget the experience.”

A young man lit candles outside Uncle Sam’s Liquors to mourn Perez’s death while others played his favorite songs and shared their favorite recollections about him. (Photo by Loi Almeron)

Martin Totland: “Richmond is a nuanced city of great people that unfortunately gets ignored too often by the big media unless something really bad happens. That paints an unrealistic picture of what it’s really like and this motivated me to experience Richmond and write about it in a different way.

“I have written about the declining homicide rates in the city, police chaplains and the important work they do, a giant drug bust that took 1100 lbs. of meth off the streets, and other things that were intended to help show a more nuanced and positive picture of Richmond. 

“Bad news gets amplified and good news doesn’t get enough attention. It’s never as bad as they say, which is important to remember. I think the media plays a large part in how we see our community and how we interact with it.”

One is too many: Richmond’s victims remembered

Friend's of Rodney Frazier, 16-year-old, light candles near the spot where he was killed outside of his home in North Richmond Saturday night. (Photo by Shawn Baldwin)

Friend’s of Rodney Frazier, 16-year-old, light candles near the spot where he was killed outside of his home in North Richmond Saturday night. (Photo by Shawn Baldwin)

Perez and others lost to violence were honored by mourners in vigils, protests and crowdfunding campaigns throughout the year. 16-year-old Rodney Frazier, who was killed outside of his North Richmond home during a November spike in gun violence, was remembered by his basketball coach and teammates as a talented point guard who stayed out of trouble.

Back in the precinct, detectives continued to chip away at cold case files they just couldn’t put down.

* * *

Shawn Baldwin: “I was standing in the driveway of Rodney Frazier’s home a few hours after he was gunned down. Blood stains fresh on the pavement, bullet holes in the house and car. A group of Rodney’s friends, barely teenagers themselves, stood beside his favorite motorbike. A few held back tears. A few cried openly.

“Rodney’s world was tiny but the obstacles he faced were enormous – poverty, a broken home, a neighborhood filled with gangs, drugs and violence. Despite this he appeared to overcome all of these challenges. He was just a few feet away from the safety of his home. His aunt left the porch light on for him. It was a tragic ending for such a young boy.”

Volunteers and clergy pray at the Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church in Richmond following a “night walk” through Pullman Point. (Photo by Shawn Baldwin)

Volunteers and clergy pray at the Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church in Richmond following a “night walk” through Pullman Point. (Photo by Shawn Baldwin)

Parker Yesko: “Three times, I retraced the steps Sun Kwon took on the morning of her murder. Starting at the nursing home where she’d lived for over a decade, in a small Korean enclave along the Richmond/El Cerrito border, I walked slowly southbound on San Pablo Avenue, careful to pause when I came upon landmarks familiar from police accounts.

“Sgt. Brian Gard, the patrol officer first on the scene when Kwon’s battered but still breathing body was discovered behind a heap of discarded tires, had spent over an hour with me at the precinct on a quiet Sunday morning detailing the investigation. It was obvious Kwon’s assault had rattled him deeply.

“He’d sent me to Sunny, Kwon’s daughter, who he’d stayed in touch with over the years. She met me on Solano Avenue in front of a salon where she rented space to style clients’ hair. In a quiet courtyard behind the shop, she showed me pictures of her lively mother and explained the frustrating quest for answers she and her siblings had been through. 

“My own mom died around the time Kwon did and Sunny and I were able to marvel at some of the strange rituals a daughter performs to keep her mother close, even after she is gone.

“The day after the article ran, Sunny left me a voicemail thanking me for bringing attention to her mother’s story.“‘I know you mentioned that you haven’t had a haircut in a while,’ she also added. ‘I owe you one. Whenever you want it, just come by.'” 

Housing/development: battles over hospital, Hilltop and Hacienda

Few people visit Richmond's Hilltop Mall. (Photo by Fan Fei)

Few people visit Richmond’s Hilltop Mall. (Photo by Fan Fei)

In the debate over the development of Richmond’s commercial and residential projects, perhaps no site has sparked more controversy than Hilltop Mall. Once envisioned as the luxurious “future of Richmond” when it was developed in the 1970s, Hilltop Mall now languishes, nearly empty of shoppers.

As discussions continue over the best course of action for the underused mall, organizations like the nonprofit Richmond Main Street Initiative also push to refocus energies on revitalizing Richmond’s once-bustling downtown. Meanwhile, the ongoing effort to save Doctors Medical Center from complete or partial closure sparked long hours of heated argument in City Council meetings.

And the long-troubled Hacienda housing project, which was declared uninhabitable in February, continues to house both tenants and mice.

***

Brett Murphy: “The opportunist in me went into this semester with reserved excitement, thinking of the city not in terms of its people but instead of journalistic fodder. 

“It didn’t take long for Richmond to become much more human than I intended. The idea of a disengaged, wholly unbiased reporter faded fast. While remaining as objective as possible, I couldn’t help but sympathize with a lot of the frustrations and community-level angst in the 23rd Street corridor, in the Iron Triangle, North Richmond, Santa Fe, and everywhere else in the city void of representation and any comprehensive media attention.

“My biggest challenge became overcoming the ‘patronizing white, liberal outsider’ role I thought I might portray. But I quickly realized the people — and this is probably in large part to Richmond Confidential’s reputation — wanted to talk, wanted to share their stories. The Latino merchants wanted to talk about the city’s prostitution problem. The voting base in the Iron Triangle wanted to talk about the unbalanced city council. And the niche jewelry-maker in Point Richmond wanted to talk about her artistic process.

“In a community wary of cameras and white men, I’m learning the importance of personal relationships, persistent face-time in the neighborhood, and a good deal of trust in people in hopes they’ll return the favor. So far, the good people of Richmond haven’t let me down.”

Education in Richmond marked by innovation and perseverance

As with nearly every subject that Richmond Confidential covered this fall, the 2014 election season cast a long shadow over education issues as candidates vied for three seats on the West Contra Costa County Unified School District board. Pro-charter school political action committees spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on favored candidates in the race.

Out of ten candidates running for office, the three best-financed candidates won the election.

Richmond Confidential’s education team came across innovative programs and initiatives, writing about De Anza High School’s three-year-old law academy and Restorative Justice, a program aimed at reducing suspensions by giving students who behave badly the option of avoiding detention or suspension if they talk through the cause of the behavior.

***

Hannah Lawson: “I had the opportunity to meet some amazing teachers, parents and students. More importantly, I was given a platform to share their stories and report on the issues that concerned them. Education in Richmond is something that so many in the community are passionate about and that passion was the driving force behind my stories.”

Kennedy High varsity football player Chepo Tirado cheers on his teammates as they defeat their cross-town rivals. (Photo by Zainab Khan)

Kennedy High varsity football player Chepo Tirado cheers on his teammates as they defeat their cross-town rivals. (Photo by Zainab Khan)

Several stories this fall chronicled the role played by athletics in the education of Richmond’s youth. The Richmond Steelers Cadets, whose 11-1 record this season put them at the top of their 8 to 10 age group, won an invitation to nationals in Florida.

Only thanks to an online fundraising campaign and a little coverage from a local TV news station were the Cadets able to make that trip to the tournament a reality.

We also covered an innovative, tough-love tutoring and mentoring program at Richmond High School that gives the team’s players a shot at succeeding beyond the gridiron.

***

Knowles Adkisson: “The story that most approached what I want to do in the future was a longer piece on a tutoring program done by the Richmond High School football team. It looked at a sports team through a different lens, exploring what the players do off the field in order to stay eligible to play, and to prepare for a life after high school.”

A city of thriving, creative communities

Families learned to kill and butcher chickens in a family-friendly, all-ages chicken butchering class in Richmond, Calif. (Photo by Bonnie Chan)

Families learned to kill and butcher chickens in a family-friendly, all-ages chicken butchering class in Richmond, Calif. (Photo by Bonnie Chan)

In a city vibrating with ideas, entrepreneurship, diversity and youth empowerment, Richmond Confidential had the opportunity to report on a cornucopia of personalities and places.

We profiled the outspoken CEO of Nutiva, the Richmond-based company that is the largest organic superfoods company in the world.

We got a behind-the-scenes look at a mosque that provides education and a safe space for Richmond’s Muslim families.

And we continued to bear witness to the RYSE Center’s social justice-oriented work with Richmond’s youth, including programming that teaches youth to make music videos for social change.

***

Semany Gashaw: “One of my favorite experiences in Richmond was spending time at the RYSE Center for the Black and Brown Lives Matter Poetry Slam. The room was filled with family members and youth sharing their frustrations over the killings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. 

“I remember just watching the kids in wonder at their skills, but also seeing the love they had for their community, and the hurt behind their young eyes. 

“This one poet described how a little boy on the train reminded her of her younger brother:

“’My brother is 10

And I never feared for his life until the day I saw this little boy on the train

Until the day I realized he was black and being raised in Richmond

Black and being raised in the hood

Black and target ready.’”

***

Thank you for your support, Richmond Confidential readers, and see you in 2015.

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